Friday, April 01, 2022

The fourth installment of the Conversations on Food Justice Series – a collaboration between Share Our Strength and Food & Society at the Aspen Institute- explored the importance of food in the fight for justice for Native American communities.

Speakers included Sanjay Rawal, award winning filmmaker and director of the film Gather, Nephi Craig, executive chef of Cafe Gozhoo, food activist and member of the White Mountain Apache tribe, and Sam Schimmel, youth climate activist and member of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. The conversation was moderated by Nikki Pitre, executive director at the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute.

Here we present three takeaways from this insightful conversation:

Food is a Path to Sovereignty

Speakers highlighted the importance of food in creating community growth and reclaiming the culture of Native communities. For them, food has memory. It can either connect you to your roots or create trauma. They spoke how native people received commodity foods, like spam and canned fish, as a band-aid whenever they couldn’t access their traditional meals, and the trauma associated with it.

Chef Craig and Schimmel have taken food as a path of connection to their communities and generating growth.

Schimmel launched Operation Drop Fish, an initiative to support Native families affected by COVID-19 in Alaska. When delivering fish to remote communities, he was able to connect to his community and support their representation by assisting them with the completion of the census.

For Craig, who is featured in Rawal’s movie Gather, food has been a lifelong passion. He grew uneasy at the fact that Native food was never represented in any of his culinary training. He connected with elders in his community to learn more about their traditional foods which had a transformative effect on him, and decided to focus not on creating Native meals for the world to see, but rather creating them for Native communities themselves.

“It has been the Native food that has been my most powerful educator,” he shared. “It was not academia that brought me to mental health, decolonization, indigeneity, health disparities and creating pathways.”

Food Sovereignty is Intrinsically Connected to the Protection of the Land

Rawal, who migrated from South Asia, shared his experience as a non-native and an immigrant. “There’s very few of us migrants that have an understanding of what it means to be connected to this land. There’s a sentiment of ‘if something bad happens I can move’.”

However, he argued that for Native people, land has an essential connection to their spiritual and cultural identity that they didn’t have a choice.

Schimmel echoed the sentiment of the importance of land for Native culture. He mentioned that climate change had significantly affected hunting and fishing in Alaska, which are essential for sustaining Native culture and food security in his community. The impact had created significant mental health effects in these communities.

“The food insecurities in Alaska are ones that are incredibly real and incredibly impactful.” He shared, “the impact of an empty refrigerator on a child’s mind is detrimental on their ability to learn and grow. Until you have food, water, and shelter, you can’t pursue any other needs. We’re just trying to get the bare minimum. A lot of our time is spent on that instead of pursuing community growth”

Schimmel argued that the Western way of land management ignored a lot of the cultural practices that supported a healthy environment in which Native communities can develop.

Native People Need Support but not Saviorism

Speakers ended the conversation with a call to support Native groups.

They said the best to support is to ask these communities what they need instead of focusing on creating solutions that come from the top down. There are thousands of efforts by youth and community organizations already doing great work in terms of sovereignty and protection of the land.

Rawal advised people to look up Native tribes in their local area, and to your own privilege and power to support them, elevate their voices and give them space within leadership.

Finally there was a strong call to just get informed, follow Native chefs and community groups, and to use social media as a way to build healthy relationships with Native communities.

The Food Justice Conversation Series will continue in late April with a conversation building on this one addressing food sovereignty in Hawaii. Please email to share any feedback, ideas or suggestions on topics you would like to see covered.


  • Chef Nephi Craig, BHT, ACRPS Executive Chef at the Rainbow Treatment Center and Café Gozhóó and Nutritional Recovery Program Coordinator

    Chef Nephi Craig has 23 years culinary experience in America and around the world in London, Germany, Brazil and Japan. Nephi Craig is an enrolled member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and is half Navajo. Chef Craig is also the founder of the Native American Culinary Association or NACA, an organization/network that is dedicated to the research, refinement, and development of Native American Cuisine. Chef Nephi Craig provides training, workshops and lecture sessions on Native American Cuisine for health to schools, restaurants, universities, treatment centers, behavioral health agencies, and tribal entities from across America and abroad. Chef Craig recently served as Executive Chef of the Sunrise Park Resort Hotel. During Chef Craig’s nine-year tenure at Sunrise Park resort, Craig and his White Mountain Apache culinary team achieved many national and international benchmarks in establishing a culture of Indigenous Foods across North America. Connect and follow @nephi_craig on Instagram.

  • Sam Schimmel Youth Advisory Board Member, Center for Native American Youth

    Sam is St. Lawrence Island Siberian Yupik and Kenaitze Indian from Alaska. Sam experienced firsthand how Climate Change impacts Arctic communities. Sam was appointed by the Governor of Alaska to serve on the State of Alaska’s Climate Action Leadership Team. Schimmel continues to support climate awareness and education as a representative for the National Congress of American Indians Climate Action Task Force. Sam is an Advisory Board Member for the Center for Native American Youth, and is on the Board of Directors for the Arctic Youth Network and was a presenter at the 2020 Arctic Observing Summit. Sam is on the core planning team for the 2020 National Tribal Climate Change Summit. As a 2020/2021 Arctic Youth Ambassador Sam, continues to learn, engage, and educate peers and communities about Arctic issues. Sam was awarded the 2020 Youth Environmental Excellence Award at this year’s 2020 Tribal Environmental Leaders Summit. Sam is in his third year at Stanford University focusing on Earth Systems and Public Policy.

  • Sanjay Rawal Film Director, "Gather"

    Sanjay spent 15 years working on human rights campaigns globally – for governments, foundations, philanthropists and celebrities. Sanjay’s first feature documentary Food Chains (2014), was produced by Eva Longoria and Eric Schlosser with narration by Forest Whitaker. The film won numerous awards, was released theatrically in 40 cities by Screen Media and was acquired by Netflix. Sanjay’s second effort took a sharp turn into non-traditional filmmaking. Applying narrative cinematic technique, Sanjay directed a sweeping expedition film. 3100: Run And Become now on Amazon Prime. Sanjay’s work has been supported by Ford, Bertha, BritDoc, Fledgling, 11th Hour Project, NoVo, and the Omidyar Network. His work has won an assortment of honors include a James Beard Media Award. Connect and follow @gatherfilm and @mrsanjayr on Instagram.

  • Nikki Pitre Executive Director, Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute

    Nikki’s Indian name is khwhele’ which means Meadow Lark. She is a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and is of the Red Bird Clan. She is also Kalispel, Yakama, Nisqually, Cowlitz, and Squaxin Island. She is a direct descendant of Chief Spokane, Chief Ignace, Chief Kamayakin and Chief Leschi. Nikki takes pride standing on the shoulders of her ancestors, honoring the foundation they have laid and being as a vessel for her grandmothers to uplift the next generation. With a true passion to support Native youth and youth-led programming, Nikki sits on the Partnership With Native Americans Board of Directors and serves on the Miss Indian World Committee for the Gathering of Nations Pow-wow. Nikki has worked on behalf of her people her whole life. Her biggest inspiration comes from her daughter, Aplnmarimn’tsu’tn (Carries the Medicine). Nikki maintains her culture through language, ceremony, powwows and honoring her teachings passed on to her.

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